Visual thinking Dan Roam - extract of its book "The back of the napkin"
(Dan Roam/Portfolio Hardcover/March 2008/288 pages/$24.95)
Solving Problems and
Selling Ideas With Pictures
THE BACK OF THE NAPKIN
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THE BACK OF THE NAPKIN
Solving Problems and
Selling Ideas With Pictures
Visual thinking is a whole new way of looking at and discussing business. It is
harnessing and applying our innate ability to use our eyes and our imagination to
discover, develop and share ideas with others.
All of us are visual thinkers at heart. This is why sometimes, a simple drawing on the
back of a piece of paper like a napkin can be more effective in visualizing the solution to
some business problem than any Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation could
Visual thinking works in business because:
■ By drawing something on paper, you can take a vague idea and clarify it for everyone
involved in the discussion.
■ By keeping it simple – using just a paper and pen – you make the activity inclusive
rather than exclusive, which means everyone‟s ideas can get grafted in.
■ By drawing pictures, you can quickly and concisely help others see what you‟re
talking about. Pictures clarify whereas words often confuse.
■ By using a picture to direct your thoughts, you don‟t have to rely on any notes or a
written script. You can focus on talking with other people and getting their ideas rather
than on giving a formal presentation.
In all, visual thinking is a better way of looking at business problems and a new way to
find interesting or innovative solutions.
“The backbone of visual thinking is a very simple process. It is composed of just four
steps, and the beauty of these steps is that we already know how to do all of them. In
fact, we‟re so good at doing them that we don‟t consciously think about them at all. But
by calling attention to these steps and drawing out the distinctions between them, we
can instantly improve our understanding of how visual thinking works. That‟s it.
Welcome to a whole new way of looking at business.”
– Dan Roam
About of Author
DAN ROAM is the founder and president of Digital Roam Inc., a management
consulting firm specializing in the solution of complex problems through visual thinking
techniques. Mr. Roamhas consulted with companies such as Google, eBay, General
Electric, the United States Navy, HBO, News Corp., Sun Microsystems, Wal-Mart and
Wells Fargo Bank among many others. He is an experienced key note speaker and
The Web site for this book is at www.thebackofthenapkin.com.
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Visual thinking is the ability to draw pictures that illustrate the solutions to a business
problem. The real power in this method lies in the fact you don‟t need to use a computer
to generate the drawings for you. Instead, you do them by hand using whatever
materials are close at hand – even the paper napkins in a restaurant if that‟s all you
Note the pictures used to solve business problems or to explain ideas are not works of
art. They are not line drawings of the Mona Lisa or anything of that caliber. Instead,
visual thinking uses hand-drawn sketches that incorporate basic shapes, lines and
arrows and stick drawings of people.
Hand-drawn pictures are better than those generated by computer because:
■ People like to see what other people have drawn – they respond better to
hand-drawn crude pictures drawn step-by-step than they ever do to polished graphics
which are obviously computer generated.
■ Hand sketches are quick to create – and therefore easy to start over if you need to
change something. This encourages a certain degree of trial and error which is healthy
■ Software often gives too many options – drawing packages generally offer a number
of different ways to draw the same thing. Sometimes you can get so caught up in
playing with these you lose track of what your original point was.
■ This is a case where less is more – simple drawings gazump the impact of highly
sophisticated drawings when you‟re trying to get a point across.
Probably the most acclaimed success story of visual thinking was the establishment of
Southwest Airlines. In 1967, Herb Kelleher was a New Jersey lawyer who had been
hired by Rollin King to help him close King‟s failed regional airline. At dinner one night,
Rollin picked up a napkin and made a quick sketch:
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Rollins suggested that instead of creating an airline that tried to serve large cities like
everyone else was doing, it would be better to run a small airline that served just the
three biggest towns in Texas. All of the other airlines were operating a hub and spoke
model – fly people to a central hub first, then to another hub and then to a smaller city.
That meant people had to catch multiple flights to go from one city to another
“Southwest legend says that Herb agreed with Rollin on two things: first, that the idea
was crazy, and second, that the idea was brilliant. On its own, their simple map
illustrated the fundamental operating principles of the company that Herb and Rollin
agreed to start that evening: fly short routes between busy cities, avoid hubs, and where
possible fly into smaller, secondary airfields. One napkin; one good idea; one profitable
– Dan Roam
Four years later in 1971, Herb Kelleher helped launch Southwest Airlines to serve the
three cities specified on that napkin. By combining operating efficiencies, convenience,
low prices, a zany corporate ethos and some very gung-ho marketing, Southwest
became successful by focusing on just a very small group of cities. The company has
gone on to grow from that early base and has managed to rack up one very impressive
statistic – it has an unbroken record of thirty years of profitability. This is a feat never
before achieved in the history of aviation. It just goes to show what sketching an idea on
the back of a napkin can achieve.
The experience of Herb Kelleher and others illustrates perfectly the benefits of the visual
thinking process – of trying to solve problems by drawing pictures. The advantages of
this approach to business are:
■ As you draw simple sketches, you can clarify what exists in your own mind only as a
vague idea. Drawing pictures makes your ideas more concrete than if you just try and
describe them using words.
■ By drawing sketches by hand on the back of any piece of paper which is available –
even a napkin if necessary – you don‟t rely on having the skills to make some other
kind of technology work. There‟s just you, your thoughts and a pen.
■ As you develop simple sketches in a group setting, this invariably invites suggestions
and comments from other people. The act of sketching out what is being discussed
encourages some inspired discussions, which is good.
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■ Finally and importantly, if you‟re making a presentation from a sketch, you‟ll find that
you can discuss things systematically without the need to rely on notes, bullet points or
a written script. Sketches are excellent ways to structure a business presentation.
“We can use the simplicity and immediacy of pictures to discover and clarify our own
ideas, and use those same pictures to clarify our ideas for other people, helping them
discover something new for themselves along the way.”
– Dan Roam
“Visual thinking is an extraordinarily powerful way to solve problems, and though it may
appear to be something new, the fact is we already know how to do it. Everybody
already has good visual thinking skills, and everybody can easily improve those skills.
By better understanding the vision tools that we already have (and then learning to use
a few new ones) we can learn to solve problems with pictures in remarkable ways.”
– Dan Roam
“Here‟s what I hope you get – a new way of looking at problems and a new way of
seeing solutions. What kind of problems can be solved with pictures? The answer is
almost all of them.”
– Dan Roam
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Looking is simply the process of taking in visual information about the world around you.
It means to collect data and make some rough initial assessments. Looking includes
scanning the environment to build a big-picture sense about what‟s going on. Looking is
the starting point of the entire visual thinking process. If you can learn to look better, you
can become proficient at visual thinking.
To develop good looking skills, there are four cardinal rules to follow:
1. Collect everything you want to look at – start with a quantity over quality approach.
Put together an exhaustive sample which includes every conceivable thing
youmayneed in the future. Gather as much raw data as is reasonably available to you
to start the ball rolling.
2. Lay everything out in one place – side-by-side preferably so your eyes can scan
everything in a few passes. Put everything in one place so you know you‟re able to
analyze everything systematically.
3. Establish a coordinate system which makes sense in this situation – some variable
which you can use to compare the relative merits of different items. In some cases, this
will be the amount of money involved. In other cases, you‟ll use a combination of the
6W coordinate system:
• Who / What is involved?
• How Much does it cost or generate?
• When will these things happen?
• Where will these things take place?
• How will these things be achieved?
• Why are these things happening?
4. Practice some “visual triage” – make a first pass to eliminate what obviously will not
apply leaving just a few options which are worthy of further examination and analysis.
“Any problem can be made clearer with a picture, and any picture can be created using
the same set of tools and rules.”
– Dan Roam
“The basics of visual thinking have nothing to do with creating charts on a computer.
Visual thinking is learning to think with our eyes, and it doesn‟t require any advanced
technology at all. The most important reason to rely on our built-in tools is because in
the end, visual thinking isn‟t about how polished our presentations are, it is in how
comfortablewe are in thinking with our eyes.”
– Dan Roam
While looking involves collecting visual information and making an initial rough
assessment about what‟s out there, seeing is where your eyes get more consciously
active and involved. Looking means to scan the big picture whereas seeing means to
select what‟s important to the task at hand. Good seeing means you recognize what
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exactly is causing the problem or presenting an opportunity and focus on that.
Broadly speaking, there are six ways you see things in the physical world:
1. You can see objects – the “Who” and the “What” is interacting in any situation.
Discrete objects always exhibit known measures and physical attributes.
2. You can see and note quantities or grouping of different objects – the “How Many” or
“How Much” of the situation. You‟re so used to seeing numbers of objects that you get
good at grouping things together without even realizing you‟re doing it.
3. You can see position in space – the “Where” of any situation. Again, you‟re already
good at noticing where objects are in a physical scene. It‟s a basic part of the way the
human mind is hardwired.
4. You can see position changes over time – then “When” of any situation. Based on
your knowledgeof physical objects, you notice whether something is moving in a
predictable or anticipated way.
5. You can see cause-and-effect relationships – the “How” of any situation. You can tell
how what one object did influenced the actions of other objects and how everything
came to end up the way it did.
6. You can see a complex interaction of different objects play out – the “Why” of any
situation. Based on what you already know, you can make an educated guess on how
things should turn out and then compare reality with what was anticipated would
happen. If things don‟t go as planned, you can then become intensely focused on
uncovering why the normal rules of physical interaction did not end up applying in this
Imagining is what happens when you‟ve collected all your visual material and you‟re
now ready to start manipulating it. As you imagine, you see things that aren‟t there
physically in your mind‟s eye. Put another waythe act of imagining means you take what
you see in the real world and translate this data into abstract pictures which you
manipulate inside your head.
In a business setting, most times imagining means coming up with an original idea or a
new solution to a problem or challenge. A good way to do this is to use the SQVID
exercise. Ask yourself five questions:
What is a simple way and a corresponding elaborate way to draw a picture
which proposes a solution to the problem or opportunity at hand?
Whether you ultimately decide to use a simple or an elaborate picture is usually
dictated by the audience you‟ll be speaking to and their familiarity. However, often
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when you think about the best way to describe your solution in both a simple and an
elaborate format, new and creative ideas will come to mind. Being able to choose
between a simple solution and a more elaborate solution and showing each graphically
is very powerful.
Am I better off talking about quantity or quality in my solution?
In other words, will it be better to use a graphic which focuses on one example in depth
or is it preferable to consider what happens to a large number of examples
simultaneously? There are times when either the quantitative or the qualitative
approach is superior and by trying both, you get a feel for what the best will be in this
Is it preferable to show a solution which is visionary in its nature or a solution
which is much more obviously practical and executable?
Sometimes, it‟s important to convey to your audience the message: “We know where
we‟re going and we have a very bright future”. In these cases, the visionary approach
will probably resonate best. At other times, however, it‟s more important to send the
message: “We know exactly what we need to do to get there”. In these cases, a more
practical set-by-step execution pathway will be of greater interest and value. The most
widelyused chart in this second setting is a Gantt chart which is in effect a bar chart laid
on its side with the length of each bar representing how long a specific task will take to
complete. Whichever of these two approaches ends up getting used, if you can come
up with some graphics that illustrate both alternatives clearly, then you‟ll have a
message that people can relate to through their eyes.
Should I focus on one individual example or compare the characteristics of a
large group of samples?
Some times, the greatest illumination will come when you zoom in to the individual
level and focus there. At other times, comparing a large group of data and how they
break down will be better. Once again if you can come up with graphics for both
scenarios, you can then choose the optimum approach for what you‟re trying to say or
Is it better to talk about the way things are at present or to dwell on the way they
could be in the future if we make a few changes?
Again both these perspectives can throw up different points-of-view and comparing
both can be quite helpful. By articulating and drawing a graphic showing what‟s
happening at the present time, people can get motivated to act to free up the more
obvious logjams. The other side of the coin is developing a graphic which encapsulates
what the ideal world of the future will look like is also helpful. It can give a mental model
to aim for which can act as a guide. As with the other questions previously discussed,
doing both is a great idea. You can look at things from two different perspectives and
capture the various ideas which get interjected that way. This stretches your
imagination and brings your ideas into clearer focus.
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Once you‟ve discovered some interesting patterns, made sense of them, and figured
out some creative ways to manipulate them so you come up with something new, it‟s
now time to show this to others. You need a good framework for summarizing your
ideas in visual format so everyone else can get up to speed with what you‟re thinking.
To show means to make clear your best ideas so you can inform and persuade.
In order to show well, there are three steps involved:
1. Select the right “show-and-tell” framework – which shouldn‟t be all that hard because
there are just six to choose from. The most appropriate framework will correspond to
the type of problem you‟re attempting to solve. If you go back to the See step, you‟ll
note there are six basic problems:
1. “Who / What”?
2. “How Much”?
2. Use the framework to create a suitable starting-point picture – which in effect means
add the appropriate coordinate system and then whatever details will enhance the
picture you‟re trying to draw.
3. Present and then explain your picture – add whatever explanatory test is required for
someone to understand what your graphic represents. Sometimes, this will need to be
a detailed explanation, while at other times a very simple and straightforward
explanation will suffice.
“Visual thinking means taking advantage of our innate ability to see – both with our eyes
and with our mind‟s eye – in order to discover ideas that are otherwise invisible, develop
those ideas quickly and intuitively, and then share those ideas with other people in a
way they simply „get‟.”
– Dan Roam
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“The act of simply selecting one of the frameworks forces us to think through what it is
that we see that is important to show. By providing us with a defined coordinate system
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and specific starting point, each framework gives us the way to get our picture started.”
– Dan Roam
A portrait is a qualitative representation of what you‟re trying to say. This may take the
form of a rendering, a profile, a plan, an elevation, a diagram and so forth. In practice, a
portrait shows the recognizable attributes of an object of some kind.
The general rules-of-thumb for drawing effective portraits are:
■ Keep it simple – remember, you‟re trying to illustrate your idea rather than win
acclaim as a new Rembrandt. If your drawing is too elaborate, it draws attention away
from what you‟re trying to say. The simpler you can keep your hand-drawn drawing,
■ Try and illuminate your lists with simple icons – because this has the effect of making
your list come to life. These small visual representations can also trigger insights that a
written list alone won‟t do.
■ Visually describe your idea – because time is short in most business settings.
Pictures consistently make for better comparisons than verbal descriptions alone.
Even adding a simple series of smiley faces to a list brings the information to life and
makes it memorable.
“While portraits don‟t show how many of something there are, where they are, or when
or how they interact – all of which will be addressed by the other specific frameworks –
they do provide the starting point by helping us identify and keep track of who is who
and what is what. The purpose of creating a business portrait is to trigger the
unexpected qualitative ideas that emerge when the hand and the mind‟s eye work
– Dan Roam
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Charts are excellent for showing how much of anything is involved. They can show
quantities, illustrate measurable criteria and show the comparative size of different
groups. A chart is an ideal quantitative representation.
When developing charts, keep these rules-of-thumb in mind:
■ Never forget it‟s the data that matters – so let the data show. If you fill your chart with
insightful information, nobody will get bored.
■ Try and use the fewest possible number of data points – so people don‟t get
confused. Make it feasible for them to be surprised as they later examine the chart in
■ Always pick the simplest model available to make your point – which generally
• Use a bar chart to explain absolute quantities.
• Use a line chart to compare one option with another.
• Use pie charts to compare relative quantities.
• Use bubble charts to compare two variables.
■ When you start using one type of chart, stay with that chart throughout – don‟t
confuse people by suddenly changing things around in mid-stream. Once everyone is
oriented one way or another, stick with that orientation.
“Unlike portraits, charts demand numbers, measures and data. For smallish numbers,
our minds do a quick count. For slightly larger quantities, we make rough estimates. For
large quantities, we just say to ourselves, ‘A lot.‟ To show these numbers to others, we
use a chart in which we turn abstract numbers into visually concrete pictures of
– Dan Roam
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Maps are the most flexible of the six visual thinking frameworks. They illustrate spatial
relationships – where one object is in relation to an entirely different object. Maps can
come in lots of different formats including organizational charts, Venn diagrams
(basically a series of overlapping circles) to the tried-and-true treasure maps where X
marks the spot.
When developing maps, keep these rules-of-thumb at the front of your mind:
■ Anything and everything has a geography you can map out if you really want to – so
be a little creative when developing your maps. Look for ways to have common
borders between two different ideas and connecting ideas which intuitively lead from
one to the other.
■ When drawing your map, remember north is only a state of mind – you can put
anything you like at the top of the map if it makes sense. Try developing some maps
that use good-bad versus expensive-cheap, or high-low versus winners-losers on the
horizontal axis and vertical axis respectively. Come up with a meaningful coordinate
system for your map and actually plotting the various “landmarks” of your choice will
then become relatively simple.
■ Look beyond the obvious hierarchy – and try to draw maps which explore alternative
themes. Instead of a simple organizational map, for example, develop a map of circles
of influence which explores who listens to whomwhen making a decision. Some of
these less obvious maps can be much more helpful when you‟re trying to understand
what‟s actually happening underneath the official channels within an organization.
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Timelines are excellent when you‟re trying to illustrate when things have happened in
the past or are likely to happen in the future. Using a timeline, you can clearly show the
various states of any object over a period of time, or how the relationship between
different objects varies over time.
Rules-of-thumb for effective timelines:
■ Always show time as a one-way street – so make use of devices like life cycles,
process maps, Gantt charts, progressions, swimming lanes, etc. Timelines are great
for sequencing so don‟t do anything to muddy the waters.
■ Anytime you have a repeating timeline, create a suitable life cycle diagram – where
everything clearly returns back to start over. If there is no obvious starting point, pick a
major milestone arbitrarily and begin the cycle there. Make it instantly clear and
obvious what‟s going on.
■ If at all possible, show timelines as straight lines rather than circles – because lines
are easier to draw, to comprehend and to remember. Circular timelines are good when
used on the face of any clocks you draw but for all other purposes, set out a timeline as
a straight line. People will appreciate that. If you add in a calendar as you go along,
your time line willbecome even more understandable and accurate.
“A timeline is a simple, qualitative, execution-oriented, individual, as-is view. For our
purposes, we‟re going to think of time as a straight line that always leads from yesterday
to tomorrow, and always tracks from left to right. Although the former rule may not be
true for time travelers and the latter is nothing more than a cultural bias, both are useful
as standards that we agree on.”
– Dan Roam
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Flowcharts are valuable drawing devices. They can detail how you arrived at the
conclusion you did. They can also specify all of the steps involved in making something
happen in precise detail. Simply put, a good flowchart will show how a conclusion was
reached – all the cause-and-effect relationships.
Flowchart rules-of-thumb to keep in mind:
■ People are used to seeing flowcharts which run from an action to a response – so try
and stay with this kind of set-up. Start somewhere logical and end somewhere equally
■ Simple flowcharts are best – leave out all of the irrelevant details so the reader can
see a well defined problem and a well thought out solution come together.
■ Never forget a flowchart tells the reader how something happens – or how a
particular conclusion was arrived at. Make every flowchart you develop lead to a
potential solution and you‟ll do just fine.
“Visual thinking is a very simple process. While our eyes serve as the tools by which we
look at the world around us and see visual patterns within it, it is in our mind‟s eye where
we manipulate those patterns, take them apart and rebuild them, hold them upside
down and shake them in order to see what falls out. Then once we‟ve rolled these
patterns around and have something to explore, record, and share, we rely on
coordination between our hands and our eyes to get those ideas down on paper for
fine-tuning and sharing. Regardless of business circumstance, project assignment or
timetable, every problem eventually breaks down into the six findamental questions
we‟ve already seen.”
– Dan Roam
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X-Y plots or more accurately “multiple-variable plots” are great ways to communicate
why some decision was reached. By seeing two different pieces of date tied together, a
clear picture can emerge. The more you understand why different things work together
to produce one result or another, the easier it becomes to develop effective
General rules-of-thumb here are:
■ Be patient – because multiple-variable plots are hard. You have to understand the
interaction between lots of different frameworks. Keep working away until you have
identified which variables belong on the chart and how best to show the variations in
each. This will take a bit of practice to get right.
■ Hit a good balance between too many variables and not enough – because to
generate real insight, you have to get this just right. If you have too few variables, all
you end up with is a bar chart. Integrate too many variables and you only end up
confusing everyone. You need to plot the few variables which have the greatest
influence on each other and the results. Finding this balance is always a matter of
■ Keep “correlation effects” distinct from “causation effects” – and make very sure
you‟re illustrating the direct impact of one variable on another. It‟s all too easy at times
to try and map correlations where no relationships between the two exist. Give all your
proposed data relationships a gut check and ensure what you‟re trying to track is
genuinely influenced by the other variable.
The real acid test for the visual thinking process comes when it‟s time to present the
ideas you have developed to other people. By going through the
Look-See-Imagine-Showsequence and applying the six frameworks, you will hopefully
have a forward-thinking picture to present.
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The best way to present your ideas is to stick to that same established pattern when it
comes time to make your pitch or formal presentation. Take the listeners through the
four-step visual thinking process. For example:
“Our goal in creating this model was to build a baseline for our industry. We believe that
by looking at our industry in an integrated way, new commercial opportunities can come
to light. So let me explain what you‟re looking at here. On the vertical axis, we have
plotted all of the features offered by ourselves and our direct competitors. On the
horizontal axis, we‟ve plotted how much revenue each company earns in total. This
shows an approximate idea of how everyone is positioned at present and the results of
“Next, we have redrawn the graph to reflect what each company is projecting to achieve
in sales revenue in the coming year. Note this company is expecting its revenue to grow
ten times. The company immediately below us is also expanding its offerings and
projects to double its revenues. If that happens, it could well knock us into third position
in the marketplace rather than the leadership position we currently enjoy.”
“So what can we do about these competitive threats? We‟ve given this some thought
and we have identified two possible options for you to consider. Option 1 is shown on
this chart. It means to upgrade the features on our existing product so it will still be
positioned above the enhanced offerings our competitors bring to market. The cost to
achieve this would be $5 million. Option 2 is shown on this next chart. Instead of
spending $5 million to enhance our existing product, we could spend $9 million to
develop a next-generation product which uses a completely different platform.Wecould
then move into a leadership position in what is an emerging market.”
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“Our recommendation is to go with option 2 rather than option 1. Our reasoning for this
is shown on this next chart. Regardless of how much we enhance our existing product
line, there is no way we will be able to compete once someone in our industry makes the
leap to the new platform. If we let someone else get there before us, we lose our
The whole point is even when you‟ve developed concise graphics that are perfectly
self-explanatory, you‟ve also got to be prepared to discuss them as people get their
heads around the concepts and ideas being put forward. Be prepared so you can walk
people through the graphics and explain them. Most business meetings tend to be like
this – people want to get the facts, make decisions and then get on with it. In a more
formal setting, you may need to be able to add more detail as required, but don‟t think of
your pictures as being worth a thousand words in and of themselves. Instead, view your
pictures as the ideal launching pad from which worthwhile ideas and agreements can
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